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Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
Symphony No. 1, H.289 (1942) [36:53]
What Men Live By (Čím lidé žijí), Opera-pastoral in one act, H336 (1951–52) [38:57]
Ivan Kusnjer – Martin Avdějič, cobbler (baritone)
Petr Svoboda – Old peasant (bass)
Jan Martiník – Stepanitch (bass)
Lucie Silkenová – A women with child (soprano)
Ester Pavlů – Old women (alto)
Jaroslav Březina – narrator (tenor)
Josef Špaček – narrator (spoken role)
Lukáš Mareček – a boy (spoken role)
Martinů Voices (choirmaster Lukáš Vasilek)
Czech Philharmonic / Jiří Bělohlávek
rec. live, December 2014 (What Men Live By) & January 2016 (Symphony No. 1) Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum, Prague
Sung texts provided in English and Czech
SUPRAPHON SU 4233-2 [75:57]

The conductor Jiří Bělohlávek who died in 2017 championed the music of Martinů, recording some forty of his works. The opera What Men Live By was produced by Bělohlávek with Czech Philharmonic from three live concert performances held in 2014 at Rudolfinum, Prague. It has taken sixty-six years since the score was written but now we finally have the world premičre recording. Made at the same location, Bělohlávek’s recording of First Symphony was recorded live in 2016, part of his unfinished projected cycle of Martinů late orchestral works on Supraphon.

For his one-act opera What Men Live By, Martinů prepared his own libretto based on an English translation of a short story Where Love is, God is by Leo Tolstoy, who in turn had used Ruben Saillens’ Le pčre Martin, a Christmas tale about a cobbler. Whilst living in the USA following the success of his one-act radio opera Comedy on the Bridge, staged in 1951, Martinů completed the score to What Men Live By in 1951-1952. He described it as an Opera-Pastoral yet I consider it an uplifting tale with a moral rather like a parable. It was 1955 before the score received its first, fully staged performance with orchestra, given at New York. Occasionally the opera was revived and then mainly with piano accompaniment. The opera with its English original libretto had its professional Czech concert premičre in December 2014 at Rudolfinum, Prague with Jiří Bělohlávek and Czech Philharmonic; it is recorded here. Director Jiří Nekvasil used this recording in his television version of the opera broadcast in September 2018.

In a 2014 interview on YouTube Bělohlávek explains: “Martinů uses a very concise music language. This is not a complex musical drama, it’s fairly conservative in its expressive register with a distinctly Czech flavour that permeates the whole structure. It’s an accessible piece, in some places it may even seem very simple. In its overall effect it fully corresponds to Tolstoy’s text on which it is based.” Bělohlávek goes on to state: “Martinů wanted the opera to be semi-staged, stressing he didn’t want any sumptuous theatrical display. The score does contain some instructions for a semi-staged performance. Wanting this recording to be as free as possible for non-musical noise we decided to make this a concert performance.” Bělohlávek uses Martinů’s own original conception, which is an English translation not a Czech libretto. It does not detract too much but it is worth bearing in mind that Bělohlávek has chosen a cast who seem to be native Czech performers singing or speaking in English.

The role of Martin Avdějič, the old cobbler, is taken by baritone Ivan Kusnjer who displays his strong voice and talent for vocal expression. Soprano Lucie Silkenová sings the part of the woman with child with a notably warm and attractive tone. Standing out as the narrator, Josef Špaček has a voice with terrific clarity and projection. He is the only cast member with virtually no Czech accent. Bass Petr Svoboda in the role of the old peasant offers reasonable clarity and expression. There is a lovely fluid delivery to Ester Pavlů as the old woman, an alto part. Stepanitch, the veteran soldier, is sung by Jan Martiník who effectively exhibits his deep, resonant bass. Thirteen-strong here, the Martinů Voices trained by chorus master Lukáš Vasilek excel in singing with impressive unity and expression.

Although it is splendidly performed and recorded, What Men Live By made little impact on me. Whilst following the libretto my concentration soon wandered. I doubt I will be reaching for this recording too soon.

Martinů was a prolific composer of over four hundred works including fifteen operas and fourteen ballets. In my view, his foremost legacy is his group of six symphonies written over a twelve-year period between 1942 and 1954. It comes as no surprise that Martinů was attracted to the genre. He was an orchestral musician himself, playing second violin in the Czech Philharmonic in 1918-1923. In 1941, blacklisted by the Nazis, Martinů fled via France, arriving in New York for a new life. Over the period 1942-1946 he composed the first five of his six symphonies. Quickly written in 1942, the First Symphony was a commission for large orchestra by Serge Koussevitzky in memory of the conductor’s late wife Natalie and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra the same year at Boston.

Musicologist Mark Morris describes the four-movement work as the most classical of the symphonies in structure. In the opening movement Bělohlávek’s reading evokes wide-open spaces and provides a impressive sense of awe. Excitement and energy combined with a sense of anticipation are features in the rhythmic Scherzo, rather like a depiction of a visiting circus. Persuasively paced by Bělohlávek, an unnerving sense of uncertainty imbues the Largo in the manner of a lament. It was almost certainly influenced by the Nazi massacre of people in Lidice, a Czech village not far from the composer’s birthplace. Noticeable in the Finale is the expert playing of Martinů’s often unusual sound world. Bělohlávek concludes the work in an uplifting celebratory tone. Overall this is a splendid performance, with substantial tension pervaded with an air of mystery. It trumps his earlier recording with BBC Symphony Orchestra, part of a set of the six symphonies made 2009/2010 at Barbican Hall, London on Onyx (reviews).

Despite the merits of this Bělohlávek account, the finest recording I know of First Symphony is from Cornelius Meister and ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, available on a set of the complete six symphonies. Meister recorded the series live in 2011-2017 at Konzerthaus, Vienna on Capriccio (review). The orchestra plays with a warm, rich late-Romantic sound, especially noticeable in the strings with a glowing tone. I cannot praise his set highly enough.

This Bělohlávek album, recorded at live performances at Dvořák Hall, Rudolfinum in Prague, has the benefit of impressive sound quality: clear, and the balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra is satisfyingly done with little unwanted noise. In the booklet I am delighted to report that sung texts of the opera are provided in English and Czech, there is a synopsis too and Aleš Březina has written a helpful booklet essay.

Martinů admirers and lovers of Czech music in general might be attracted to this world premičre recording of the one-act opera What Men Live By coupled with a first-rate performance of the First Symphony.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf



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